The “Negro problem,” wrote Norman Podhoretz in 1963, would not be solved unless color itself disappeared: “and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means–let the brutal word come out–miscegenation.” Coming after a lengthy confession of his tortured feelings toward blacks–and coming at a time when 19 states still had anti-miscegenation statutes on the books–Podhoretz’s call for a “wholesale merging of the two races” seemed not just bold but desperate. Politics had failed us, he was conceding; now we could find hope only in the unlikely prospect of intermarriage.
Podhoretz’s famous essay was regarded as bizarre at the time, but 33 years later, it seems like prophecy. We are indeed intermarrying today, in unprecedented numbers. Between 1970 and 1992, the number of mixed-race marriages quadrupled. Black-white unions now represent 12 percent of all marriages involving at least one black, up from 2.6 percent in 1970. Twelve percent of Asian men and 25 percent of Asian women are marrying non-Asians. Fully a quarter of married U.S.-born Latinos in Los Angeles have non-Latino spouses. We are mixing our genes with such abandon that the Census Bureau is now considering whether to add a new “multiracial” category to the census in the year 2000. This orgy of miscegenation has not yet brought the racial harmony for which Podhoretz longed. But recent publicity about the intermarriage figures has stirred hope once again that our racial problems might be dissolving in the gene pool.
The Census Bureau’s “multiracial” proposal has provoked strong reactions from civil-rights activists who fear that many African Americans will defect to the new category, thus diluting black political power. But the debate, properly framed, is not just about “light flight” from the black community. The debate is about our very conception of race. For a “multiracial” box would be an admission that the five points of our modern-day “ethno-racial pentagon” (black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American) are not fixed or divinely ordained, but fickle and all too man-made.
Race, you see, is a fiction. As a matter of biology, it has no basis. Genetic variations within any race far exceed the variations between the races, and the genetic similarities among the races swamp both. The power of race, however, derives not from its pseudoscientific markings but from its cultural trappings. It is as an ideology that race matters, indeed matters so much that the biologists’ protestations fall away like Copernican claims in the age of Ptolemy. So the question, as always, is whether it is possible to break that awful circle in which myth and morphology perpetually reinforce one another.
The leaders of the fledgling multiracial movement say that their category, and more broadly, their lives, represent the way out. By marrying across the color line, by raising mixed-race children without regard to labels, they promise to obliterate our antiquated notions of racial difference. As a newlywed who has recently joined their ranks, I hope they’re right. When the time comes, I won’t want to infect my Chinese-Scotch-Irish-Jewish children with bloodline fever. I won’t force them to choose among ill-fitting racial uniforms. That said, though, there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether intermarriage can ever, as one partisan put it, “blow the lid off of race.”
Foremost is this reality: Racialism is highly adaptive. That is, no matter how quickly demographic change proceeds, we seem to find a way to reinvent and sustain our jerry-rigged pigmentocracy. A case in point is the term “Hispanic.” Ever since this category was added to the census in 1977, we’ve been told that “Hispanic” is merely a linguistic category, that Hispanics “can be of any race.” Today, amid a boom in the Hispanic population, we hear that caveat the same way smokers read the surgeon general’s warning. The story of the last 20 years is the way heterogenous Hispanics–who ought to have exposed the flimsiness of racial categories–became just another homogenous race. The square peg, by our thinking, had been rounded off.
Will this happen to “multiracials”? Their numbers are still small. Despite the quadrupling of multiracial marriages since 1970, only 5 million people today qualify–and that’s counting racially distinct parents as well as their mixed-race kids. This may not be enough of a critical mass for multiracials to become a race of their own. Moreover, multiracials have less reason to cohere than Hispanics ever had; they include every conceivable combination of races, and they are not bound together by language. Still, in a nation accustomed to thinking of “official races,” they’ll feel pressure to form an interest group: multiculturalism’s latest aggrieved tribe.
One possibility is that all multiracials, over time, will find themselves the intermediate race, a new middleman minority, less stigmatized than “pure” blacks (however defined) but less acceptable than “pure” whites. Their presence, like that of the “coloreds” in old South Africa, wouldn’t subvert racialism; it would reinforce it, by fleshing out the black-white caste system. Again, however, the sheer diversity of the multiracials might militate against this kind of stratification.
Yet this same diversity makes it possible that multiracials will replicate within their ranks the “white-makes-right” mentality that prevails all around them. Thus we might expect a hierarchy of multiracials to take hold, in which a mixed child with white blood would be the social better of a mixed child without such blood. In this scenario, multiracials wouldn’t be a distinct group–they would just be distributed across a continuum of color.
Sociologist Pierre van den Berghe argues that such a continuum is preferable to a simple black-white dichotomy. Brazilians, for instance, with their mestizo consciousness and their many gradations of tipo, or “type,” behold with disdain our crude bifurcation of race. Yet no amount of baloney-slicing changes the fact that in Brazil, whitening remains the ideal. It is still better for a woman to be a branca (light skin, hair without tight curls, thin lips, narrow nose) than a morena (tan skin, wavy hair, thicker lips, broader nose); and better to be a morena than a mulata (darker skin, tightly curled hair). Subverting racial labels is not the same as subverting racism.
Still another possibility is that whites will do to multiracials what the Democrats or Republicans have traditionally done to third-party movements: absorb their most “desirable” elements and leave the rest on the fringe. It’s quite possible, as Harvard Professor Mary Waters suggests, that the ranks of the white will simply expand to engulf the “lighter” or more “culturally white” of the multiracials. The Asian American experience may offer a precedent: As growing numbers of Asian Americans have entered the mainstream over the last decade, it is increasingly said–sometimes with pride, sometimes with scorn–that they are “becoming white.”
We could thus end up with three reconfigured races. In the “black” box: black-black offspring. In the “mixed” box: black-Latino, black-Asian, black-white, and Latino-Asian kids. In the “white” box: white-white, white-Asian, and perhaps white-Latino issue. Absurd? One need only recall the baroque lexicon of “quadroons” and “octoroons” to know the absurd uses to which our powers of taxonomy can be put.
These cautionary scenarios demonstrate that our problem is not just “race” in the abstract. Our problem is the idea of the “white race” in particular. Scholar Douglas Besharov may be right when he calls multiracial kids “the best hope for the future of American race relations.” But even as a “multiracial” category blurs the color line, it can reaffirm the primacy of whiteness. Whether our focus is interracial adoption or mixed marriages or class-climbing, so long as we speak of whiteness as a norm, no amount of census reshuffling will truly matter.
We return, then, to the question of politics. Perhaps we should abolish all racial classifications. Perhaps we should supplement the five-race scheme with a “None-of-the-Above” category. Perhaps we should replace affirmative action with a class-based alternative. Perhaps we need a leader of mixed heritage–say, Colin Powell–to educate the public about the realities of race. Whatever it takes, though, we need to do more than marry one another if we are ever to rid our minds of color-consciousness. “The way of politics,” Podhoretz lamented a generation ago, “is slow and bitter.” Indeed. But it is the only lasting way. Our ideology of “blood,” like blood itself, is too fluid, too changeable, and too easily diverted to be remade by lovers alone.